It's not uncommon for working women to find themselves caught in a double bind. "Lean in," they're told, but "don't come across too aggressive" or "dominant" or "bossy" or "self-promotional."
Time and time again, working women are encouraged to go after what they want and to demand more. But a wealth of research shows that they're penalized for speaking up. They walk a precariously fine line and, as such, all too many of them admit to laying low in their offices so as to not violate preconceived gender norms. They're expected to passively shrug off the sexism that plagues workplaces — to laugh it all off, perhaps.
But new research says that even using comedic relief at work can hurt women.
The new research is contradictory of past studies, which suggest that using humor can actually help women in professional settings.
"Sometimes women actually use humor in [certain] situations to bridge the gap [with men]," Stephanie Schnurr, who studies linguistics and leadership at the University of Warwick, has said. "If they use a bit of humor, it enables them to soften the impact of being authoritative."
But this time around, researchers found that gender actually affects how jokes play out.
In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers at the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado-Boulder explored the ways we view humor in the workplace. When men use humor, it's often considered "functional" or even helpful, according to the report. But, when women use humor, it's more likely to be viewed as "disruptive" and deemed distracting from the work at hand.
"The advice from many popular authors and books is that adding humor to your presentation makes you more charismatic," Jon Evans, a co-author of the paper said. "That can be misguided for women."
The researchers came to this conclusion by showing their study's participants one of four videos of a hypothetical retail manager making sales presentations. In two of the videos, the male and female leaders used scripts without any humor; in the other two videos, however, the scripts had workplace-appropriate jokes.
"The female humor was rated as more dysfunctional," said Evans.
Specifically, the men who used humor were described as having higher statuses than the men who didn't joke around, while the opposite was true for women. Women who cracked jokes were more likely to be viewed as less-capable leaders.
Using a psychology concept called "parallel constraint satisfaction" theory to explain this difference, Evans and his colleagues suggest that men are stereotyped as having "agency," which means that they're considered task-focused and rational achievers. Meanwhile, women are stereotyped as having lower agency, which means that they're not perceived to be as dedicated to their jobs and are, rather, deemed distracted by other responsibilities. And, because humor can be interpreted as positive or negative (it can either help to diffuse tension or be distracting from work, for example), the gender of the person joking affects how those jokes are received.
Add to that the fact that women are largely considered "not so funny," and it's no surprise that humor can hurt women at work. In fact, the internet is rife with articles explaining "why women aren't funny" and why women shouldn't try to be.
In a New Yorker post, "Women Just Aren't Funny," writer Ginny Hogan satirically says: "I hate to say it, but I don’t think women are funny. Hear me out, though — I have a good reason. I once went to a comedy show, and there was one woman who performed and she didn’t do well. I mean, sure, the audience members were all drunk men yelling at her to take her top off, but she did not make me laugh. It’s true that I did go to the bathroom about 15 seconds into her set, but still. Meanwhile, of the eight men in the show’s lineup, one of them did do well. So I can’t say that men aren’t funny when I have a clear example of a man who was funny, can I?"
In other words, when one woman isn't considered funny, we extrapolate about an entire gender's comedic capabilities.
In another piece for The Guardian, "Why Aren't Female Comedians Funny?," writer Ayesha Hazarika explains that men are socialized to be funny to woo women, while women don't need to be funny.
"Sexist cultural gender norms play in to this," she writes. "Humor can be very powerful as it shows confidence and great intelligence — and in our culture that is still the male role. Be it the guy holding court in the bar, in the boardroom or on the panel show. The message to women too often is sadly still 'be as attractive to men as possible,' and being funny — or perish the thought — loud, aggressive, bossy, ambitious or even nasty, just doesn’t quite fit that narrative. Women should be pretty. Men should be funny. Most men prefer women to be their appreciative audience, not their competition."
And in another article published on Vanity Fair, "Why Women Aren't Funny," writer Christopher Hitchens put it this way: "Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit."
Generally, women aren't considered as funny as men because of societal standards. And when they are, they're considered threatening and less attractive. We already know that women who aren't "likable" in the workplace are penalized. Sadly, it's a double standard that women — funny or not— know all too well.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.